Both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed are creeds of the Church, structured and succinct ways of expressing the beliefs of the faith. The word creed comes from the Latin word “credo,” meaning “I believe.”
The Apostles’ Creed is traditionally linked to being written by the apostles, hence its name. It’s said that on Pentecost, the apostles paused before going out to preach the Gospel to agree on what they would be preaching. Each apostle is said to have put forward one of the lines of the creed, thus making it 12 points long. This enchanting story, however, doesn’t have basis in history. The substance of the creed, belief in the Three Divine Persons of the Trinity, was written as part of a text called the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus, around the year 215. It appears in a more mature form in a text around 350 as the Roman Symbol. Called a symbol here, the text was something one believed in to gain admittance to the Church, like a ticket to a movie or a sporting event. It doesn’t appear in the current form until 710.
As this creed developed, challenges to the faith arose. These challenges raised different questions as to who Christ and the Holy Spirit are. To respond to these challenges, the Church held a series of four councils between 325 and 451 to clarify beliefs in order to respond to these challenges. An easy way to explain it was through composing a new creed, the Nicene Creed, so named as this was where the council took place. It was based on the developing Apostles’ Creed, but more detailed in substance, so people could more easily tell what was true and what wasn’t.
The creed used at holy Mass was a later development. It began to be used in the sixth century, but didn’t begin to be used on a regular basis until the 10th century. Emperor Henry II of the Holy Roman Empire, located largely in present-day Germany, was disturbed to see that it wasn’t used in his coronation in 1014. He asked and was told it wasn’t used because the Church of Rome had never been disturbed by a question of faith and thus didn’t need to say it on a regular basis. After this, however, the Nicene Creed began to be introduced more into Masses in Rome. The Nicene Creed, safeguarding the nature of Christ and the Holy Spirit, was the creed chosen to be said at Mass due to its greater detail in these subjects. The Apostles’ Creed, more easily understood, was used per tradition at baptisms and at devotions.
This division lasted until 1973, when the “Directory for Masses with Children” allowed the Apostles’ Creed to be used at Masses with children, as it was largely used in catechesis with children and would thus be more familiar to them. Permission was enlarged in 2002 with the new Roman Missal, which comprises the prayers we use at Mass. The Apostles’ Creed may now be used in place of the Nicene Creed at any time and is especially appropriate during the seasons of Lent and Easter.
Regardless of the creed that is used, both creeds serve the same purpose: to express the faith of the Church.
This column appeared in a previous edition of the Review.
Father Mayo is pastor of St. Raphael Parish in south St. Louis.